'Red Dragon' taut, restrained thriller
By Marshall Fine
The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News
|RED DRAGON (Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, nudity). Three and One-Half Stars (Good-to-Excellent)
Made in 1986 as "Manhunter," this Thomas Harris novel gets a more serious reworking with Anthony Hopkins reprising the role of Hannibal Lecter in a movie that offers solid acting and enough shocks and thrills for the most jaded viewer. Starring Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, and Emily Watson. Directed by Brett Ratner. Universal Pictures, 120 minutes.
Compared to most of the thrillers out at the moment, it looks pretty darn good. But this adaptation of Thomas Harris' first book in what became a Hannibal Lecter trilogy has other criteria looming over it.
It's a much richer, more faithful adaptation of Harris' novel than "Manhunter," Michael Mann's "Miami Vice"-like 1986 version of the same book. And, compared to director Brett Ratner's other work ("Rush Hour," "The Family Man"), it looks like an absolute masterpiece.
But what if you put it up against the entire Lecter movie oeuvre, a list that includes Mann's film, Ridley Scott's "Hannibal" and Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs"?
In that company, "Red Dragon" still stacks up: It's not as controlled (or surprising) as "Silence," but it's a more serious film than Scott's rococo "Hannibal." Overall, it's a taut, restrained thriller that makes the most of ingenious plotting, even as it draws life from strong performances in all roles.
In this story, which chronologically precedes "Silence," the central figure is Will Graham (Edward Norton), a retired FBI profiler. He quit after capturing Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, in what has become a signature role), and nearly being killed in the process.
But now his old boss, Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), has come looking for Graham. A killer has slaughtered families in two different cities; the murders are obviously connected, but the FBI is coming up dry in terms of clues or motive. Crawford needs Graham's special skills to crack the case.
But, after walking through one of the murder scenes and examining the evidence, Graham is at a dead end. He requires the insight of another expert: Lecter.
Even as Graham fences with the mad doctor, we see the killer at home. His name is Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), a man with demons in his past who is in thrall to a voice in his head. The voice seems to emanate from a painting, telling Dolarhyde that performing these ritualized killings will transform him into a god.
Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for adapting "Silence of the Lambs," does an equally good job at condensing this Harris novel into a crisp, propulsive thriller about a deadly three-way tango between a cop and two killers: one at-large, one behind bars.
Tally also finds a way to bring what amounted to back-story in the novel into the foreground. After all, Lecter only has a couple of scenes in the book but audiences want to see Hopkins' chilling smile, listen to his wonderfully flat American accent and imagine all the horrible things he might do, were he not penned up like a starving wolverine.
Norton seems genuinely overwhelmed by the vibrations from the killing and obviously spooked around Lecter. Fiennes, meanwhile, says little but lets his eyes speak volumes as a lifelong loner who, at his darkest moment, discovers the capacity for love. Keitel has the right steely assurance as Crawford and Philip Seymour Hoffman does a witty turn as a sleazy tabloid reporter who winds up being part of his own story.
And Lecter? Well, what can you say about Hopkins in this role that hasn't already been said? Every time he trains his piercing gaze on Graham (or anyone else), he looks like a human piranha, but with the patience and grace of a huge predatory feline. It's as though the sound of millions of snapping, pointy teeth is buzzing behind his eyeballs.
Still, it's a performance, as opposed to a characterization. Whenever Hopkins is onscreen, you're aware of him as well as Lecter having a bit of fun with just how scary this guy is, by playing against the grain of the role.
"Red Dragon" is much better than we had any hope to expect, given how many times filmmakers have gone to this particular well. Rather than sensationalize already sensational material, Ratner lets it speak for itself, creating serious thrills and scares along the way.
Rated R (profanity, graphic violence, nudity).
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